We slide through the country night, winter trees black like ink whisking by the windows of our snarling purple Nissan. The clouds are low and thick. To the north their bellies are orange with glow from the small city of Barrie, while the southern horizon is ablaze from shore to shore with the megalopolis of Toronto's light. Above us, a corridor of darkness reflects the strip of rurality through which we drive.
I am a passenger. The car is an extension of my wife's body, now, responding to her nudges and shifts as I lean my tired head against the frosty window. It is the deepest part of winter, and I am flipping through a recently published anthology called Traffic Life: Passionate Tales and Exit Strategies. Running from pages 171 to 181 is my own article, laid out in stately serifs.
"I've been published," I say to myself, feeling the soft, woody texture of the page. "Coolio Iglesias."
And so, speeding through the country night, by bobbing head and cabin light, I elect to read this book...
In the autumn of 2003 while I pushed through the final stages of animation production on my short film Space Attack! an idea that had been percolating in my mind for years finally found fruition in the form of an essay about multi-car emergent zoomorphia, and their short, frothy lives in the currents of traffic.
Stephan Wehner (1966 - 2053) e-mailed me shortly after my traffic piece first appeared in the Scooposphere, a flurry of Kuro5hin-fed inbound hyperlinks inflating my PageRank and sending me up the Blogdex and Popdex charts. For a brief fortnight Google's venerable database coughed up the article in response to almost any query containing the word traffic.
Unbeknownst to me, Stephan had put out a call for submissions for an anthology of creative responses to the issues raised by an automotively inclined civilisation. When the window for submissions had closed, Stephan trawled the world wide web for other works which might complement his intended theme. Via googling he found mine.
In his e-mail he said he wanted permission to reprint a version of my article, and included a PDF sample of a very reasonable contract. It was so artist-friendly, in fact, that I immediately began to suspect that Stephan lived in North America's famously liberal Left Coast -- which he does. He seemed like an amicable enough idealist, and I was personally tickled by the idea of being published in a book, so I granted his mysterious Buckmaster Institute permission to publish.
While the agenda of the institute was not explicit, it was not hard to guess: put together "creative responses" with "West Coast" and "traffic" and the net result is pretty much a foregone conclusion -- hooray for bikes.
Stephan mailed me PDF galleys, and we negotiated over a few points of editing. He was friendly, flexible and candid, making the experience completely painless. In two weeks it was done, and it was time to wait...
When the finished books finally arrive I am relieved that the cover is reasonably classy. I open the box in the passenger seat of the car, as we speed along a beautiful expanse of winding winter highway toward our new home in the country. "You're surprised the cover is elegant?" asks my wife, downshifting to negotiate an atoll of ice.
"Sure," I say. "You know how it can be with hippies. They start by gluing shit together they find on the beach and before you know it they're shellaqing road-kill into collages of advertising spreads from the Big Three."
"Uh-huh," says my wife, rolling her eyes.
The book is white. The title, copy and art occupy a neat rectangle in the upper third. The art is a photograph of a dented chrome fender, not quite close-up enough to abstract completely, but cropped in enough to make the lines of the machine's design and reflections dominate over the literal form. Nice picture. The design is credited to Andrea Schmidt.
But it is hours before I get a chance to open the book. My wife and I are stripping wallpaper and repainting at our new house -- a century-old wood, brick and stone renovated school at the centre of a tiny rural village -- scrambling to get everything set for our looming moving day...
I get a break on the road.
The anthology opens with a foreword by American broadcaster John Z. Wetmore, producer of Perils for Pedestrians and international advocate for perambulatorilarity. "Americans are all too familiar with this driving culture," writes Wetmore; "the current generations grew up in it. Cruising the strip was the central part of life in American Graffiti, and in a thousand other movies." Wetmore invites us to imagine typical scenes of American teenagehood taking place in less automotive environs, coloured in shades of European romance. He wraps up his contribution by advocating advocacy, calling upon the reader to take a stand against the driving culture and all that it implies.
Next is Stephan's own preface, a more personal piece about his contemplations and observations during a move up the coast from San Francisco to Vancouver. The French-born computer scientist, mathemagician and software engineer notes, in part:
We have a car culture that has produced communities of thousands of people without a store, where everyone arrives home and leaves again by car, where neighbours hardly know each other, isolated by an insidious mechanism."What do you think?" asks my wife, feeding our car into the streaming ribbon of lights of the 401, a ten-lane amphitheatre of speed and blood that bisects Toronto's north.
I rub my eyes and close Traffic Life. "Well, so far it isn't so much about traffic as it is about hating traffic. But I suppose the two themes are indistinguishable from the point of view of anti-car advocacy. It's a bit as if the book were called World of the Deer but written by a chef, so all of the deer featured inside are sliced up and decorated with parsley."
"I see," says my wife.
Later, as I am tucking into bed in a room full of cardboard boxes packed for moving, I slip out Traffic Life and spread it open again. The first creative piece featured is Greg Taylor's Touched by an Angel? - Nope, Whacked by a Hatchback, a dialogue between God and a bicyclist, while in the midst of a time-stretched moment as the latter collides with a car. Typical of the genre, God suggests that the accident victim reassess his priorities upon recovery, encouraging bicycling (hooray for bikes!), appreciation and humility.
After that, a poet by the handle of Attila the Stockbroker is mistaken for a windshield-servicing freelance squeegineer while collecting tadpoles by the road (hooray for polliwogs!). Fellow poet Aaron Naparstek invites us to consider automobiles from the inside out, instead:
our new minivanThis is followed by a reprinting of the Ray Bradbury classic story The Pedestrian, in which mild-mannered Leonard Mead takes his usual evening stroll in an unpleasant near-future where unassisted transportation is considered highly suspicious behaviour. Ultimately, he is hauled away by authoritarian robots with a tenuous grasp of Miranda.
so many cup holders it
needs a dishwasher
The companion piece in the collection is a reprinted story by everybody's favourite science-fiction quotable grinch, Harlan Ellison, who offers a new afterword to Along the Scenic Route written especially for Stephan's anthology. This harrowing tale of road-rage in a nightmarish future of officially sanctioned highway death-matches has been credited by some media-squids with prophesising some modern driving-violence phenomena, to which Ellison responds by reluctantly agreeing to don the mantle of Nostradamus provided there is a paycheque attached.
Between these two short stories comes a surreal stream of bicycle-bred considerations by Peter Gelman called Bending a Straight Road, which builds up through a series of mimsy observations to speculate so:
Every road is on a sphere, namely a planet -- a planet called Earth. Every road, no matter how straight-looking, is secretly curved. All I have to do is find the way it's curved...All I need to do is find that secret downhill quality to even the uphill roads and I will win every race on this planet..."Which I find provocative, personally. This meander is sandwiched by a piece of bicycle-centric Sir Arthur Conan Doyle fanfic by Scott Munn (hooray for bikes!) and a series of three road photographs by Scott Massey (cars be damned!). Cartoonist Andy Singer then invites us to make our own car by cutting out the pieces he's drawn and folding them together.
Next come the personified bikes experiencing existential angst as they are replaced by cars, poems about busses stuffed full, and art by two Jeffs: mock-primitive vaguely Klee-like paintings of bicyclists hunting traffic with spears, and a highly Kubrickian clay sculpture of a cowboy riding a car...
A few manifestoes by angry political organisations are thrown in for good measure, declaring declarations in the name of foot and air. Michael Burton blames Henry Ford, and Patricia Wellingham-Jones blames yuppies. Neal Skorpen's four drivers of the apocalypse bear down on innocent pedestrians like Janice Levy, and Joanna Emery's blameless kids. Somewhere around the middle is the sheet music for a jazz tune called Roadkill by Jeff Younger.
...I close the book for a spell. Cars, rage, metal, smog, death!
When I get back to it I am smelling paint dry in my new house. Upstairs, I can hear my wife sweeping. Tomorrow the moving truck we've hired will burn uncountable litres of gasoline, hauling four metric tonnes of material gain from the megalopolis to our rural retreat. (My shiny blue bicycle will travel inside the truck, because we've found the other way around to be ineffective.)
Goulais River is an interesting story by Matt Hern about a car-ambivalent man who attempts to drive a jallopy from Quebec to British Columbia. His car breaks down in a friendly hamlet, where the narrator tarries through several failed repair attempts and then, ultimately, smashes his car in a fit after getting in touch with his automotive hatred. He then burns the car, and wanders back to the highway to hitch a lift.
Parking Structure Three by Wes Alderson is a story about a surreal parking garage whose spiralling levels lead out of this world, a strange kind of fictive parallel to Robert Gregory's suggestion that acquiring a car is an indulgence that quickly spirals out of control, engulfing one's life and love.
Toward the end, Ken Aviador's creepy cartoon Roadkill Bill paints a dark portrait of fat and oiled Americana. Red Sara makes no qualms about her cars-be-damned stance in her stark, strongly graphical paintings of bloody car tragedies. There are more contributors than I have time or space to mention: Rick Millikan, Gene Seibel, Dean Wirth, Sue Clancy, Alex Lang...but before too long I reach the end.
And so I pat closed the book, and set it aside on the floor of my furniture-free livingroom.
A tree whom someone has killed has been cut up into little bits and sold to me, so I put it in my fireplace and burn it to help warm up the winter-cold house. (So far, no signs of vengeance from the Lorax.)
Traffic Life is packed with dozens of interesting, engaging and creative responses to some of the issues raised by modern traffic, but it can be a bit of a depressing read: modern traffic has many ugly features. If you're a hooray-for-bikes! or cars-be-damned! sort of person, this is the collection for you. And if you're not, you might find it interesting to sample the perspective of some expressive writers who have a different view. Operators are standing by.
Soon, cars will serve me again. I can't help but have mixed feelings.